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Stoppage time: Referendum won't answer the last question

No, it won't be "judgement day". Far from it. Sunday, August 19, will only confirm that we are a divided nation blindly struggling for the true meaning of democracy.

Published on August 15, 2007

Of course, the referendum on the controversial charter draft will generate tangible effects on our immediate political future, probably determining who will become the next prime minister, but it won't provide the definitive answer to the ultimate question.

What should be the common value that all Thais will forever hold dear? We have been lacking this one value and the continuous quest for it has only led us to blind alleys or dead-ends. With a staggering percentage of the population not truly informed about the draft constitution's content and another large portion not even caring about what's written because they have made up their minds to be "proxy voters", we won't be anywhere near the answer after Sunday.

The draft's passage would only show that the majority of us want to plough ahead, for better or worse. And this assumption would be half-hearted at best, because one could argue the military junta's shadow may have some influence on the outcome. An unlikely triumph for the "No"-vote campaign on the other hand would serve more as a verdict on the coup-makers than a true statement of what Thais really want.

For many of us, it will be a vote on what we "don't" want. Those on one side will use the occasion to reiterate their disapproval of corruption, while the other will cast ballots to decry dictatorship or an opportunistic military. Far less clear is what we think is the best way to guard against the two evils at the same time.

The ultimate question, "How can we achieve a democracy that blends honesty and legitimacy, and thus keep politically ambitious men in uniform at bay?" has never been so resounding. Yet Sunday will come to pass and we should be thankful if we don't end up more confused.

The extreme acrimony and prejudices attached to this referendum will add to the complexity of this soul-searching process. Would a "Yes" vote legitimise the overthrow of a government elected by the people? Should we ever accept a charter handed to us by a military junta? Then again, do "No"-vote advocates really care about what constitution we have, as they were nowhere to be seen when the much-loved 1997 charter was trampled with the 2001 acquittal of Thaksin Shinawatra?

It will be a democratic exercise, more or less, but most of the signs are pointing at the possibility of it leading us back to where we started. Corruption will most likely adapt and find its way back, like when it teased and then overcame the 1997 constitution. The military will keep lurking in the shadows.

We can write a dream constitution and have it passed by 99 per cent of the population. That's easy. What happened to the 1997 "People's Charter" - betrayed by those who were supposed to protect its principles with their lives and put out of its misery by a military junta - confirmed that what's really elusive is not a perfect constitution, but our will to defend what's written.

Yes, we will be voting for our purported values on Sunday - be it good governance, the rights of the masses, anything but Thaksin, or anything but a junta. But whatever the result, the quest is far from over. And the challenge is to make sense out of the present farce and absurdity and move on with a common direction.

Our quest so far has yielded a twisted and distorted democracy, which has always forced us to decide which is the "lesser" evil instead of encouraging us to foster or strengthen noble principles. What do we get from a system that teaches people to evade, rather than uphold, the highest law of the land? The answer is right in front of us.

We can blame anyone and anything, but it's absolutely not bad luck that we've got a junta-endorsed high court rocked by a bribery scandal involving an alleged lobbyist working for what was largely considered a people's party.

Again, we have been left to ponder which is worse - a democratic political party that allegedly committed an electoral fraud and was linked to a bribery attempt to escape dissolution, or a military-backed tribunal that disbanded the most popular party in Thai history?

A lot of us will cast our ballots weighing these two evils in minds, ironically because the constitution's "contents" don't really matter, as it has always been the case in Thailand.

Tulsathit Taptim

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